Even while the cold winter winds are still keeping eager gardeners indoors, there is plenty of work to be done. Winter is the best time to plan and start an herb garden. By planning the garden and starting seeds indoors weeks before the last frost, gardeners can, in effect, stretch the growing season, while ensuring the greatest possible yield from their plants.
As with any garden project, the first step is deciding what plants to include in your new garden. A logical starting point is the location of the plot. Will this bed receive adequate light? Most herbs require full sun to thrive, but a few can tolerate some shade.
Check the area at different times throughout the day to determine whether it receives continuous or only partial sun. Keep in mind that light patterns may change with the seasons. An area that receives unobstructed sunlight in the winter and early spring may be in shade during the summer when trees have their leaves.
Next, determine which herbs you would like to grow. Decide if you are interested in growing herbs for culinary, medicinal, or aesthetic uses, or a combination. Refer to a good gardening book for descriptions of each herb, and start a chart showing how tall and wide each plant grows, how much space it requires between plants and any other specific information about their characteristics.
This is very important since some plants have specific growing requirements. For instance, mint and violets are highly invasive, so these herbs might be better suited to containers rather than the garden itself.
Once armed with this information, you’re ready to design your garden. First, outline the dimensions of the bed on graph paper. Then indicate where you want each plant to go using circles with the plant’s name written inside. It may take more than one attempt if this is your first design effort, so try to enjoy the creative process.
If you have the luxury of space, you might try a formal design, with a birdbath or other focal point in the center, and gravel paths or stone walkways dividing the growing area surrounding it. Otherwise, simply arrange the plants according to height, so that the tallest ones will not cast shadows on the shorter ones.
Be sure to consider how you will get to the farther plants, allowing enough room for you to pass among the herbs to tend and harvest them. Also, remember to space plants the proper distance apart; some will not grow well when crowded.
When you are happy with your new garden design, count the number of each plant that appears in it, and prepare a master list. Then purchase the supplies needed to start your plants from seed indoors. This will include seeds; starter trays, which have multiple compartments for starting many seeds in a small amount of space; enough peat pots for the number of plants you intend to grow; plastic liner trays to hold the peat pots; and a good soil mix.
This is much lighter and less dense than regular potting soil, making it easier for the tender new roots to grow. If you are not sure how much soil mix to buy, ask an associate at your garden center. He or she can advise you on how much is needed to fill the starter trays and the number and size peat pots you are purchasing.
Some beginners like to start more plants than they need to fill their garden, and this is a good idea. If some plants don’t survive, the surplus will save you from having bare spots in the garden. If all your plants make it, you can always give the extras to family, friends, and neighbors, who will be glad for your talent and generosity.
Seed manufacturers recommend starting your seeds eight to twelve weeks before the date of your last frost. Check your seed packets for specific recommendations. When you are ready to begin, fill your starter trays with the soil mix. (An alternative to purchasing starter trays is to use egg cartons.
Be sure to punch several small holes in each compartment for drainage.) Add a seed to each compartment, planting them to the depth specified on the seed packets. Mist to wet the soil. Seeds require warmth in order to germinate, so arrange your trays in a warm, well-ventilated room. Keep the soil moist. Germination time varies from one plant to another, so your seeds will not all sprout at precisely the same time.
While you’re waiting, prepare to meet the lighting requirements of your plants. Although very elaborate and expensive lighting systems are available for indoor gardening, many growers have found that simple fluorescent shop lights cost much, much less and are equally effective.
The light must be suspended about 12 inches from the top of the plants, so you must be able to raise the lights as the plants grow. As soon as your seeds begin to sprout, move the trays to their new home beneath the lights.
When your plants have sprouted their first set of true leaves, they should be transplanted into the peat pots. Place the pots in the plastic trays, then add water to the tray. It will take awhile, but eventually the water will be soaked up along the sides of the pots and throughout the soil mix.
This is called bottom watering and is much better than top watering since it will not cause the starter mix and seeds to run out of the pots. Bottom watering also encourages the new roots to reach downward.
Your plants must be hardened off before they can be planted in the garden. This means they are become acclimated to the temperature, wind and light differences between your house and the outdoors. After the last-frost date, take your seedlings outdoors for a few hours each day, leaving them in a spot where they will be sheltered from the sun and wind.
After a few days, slowly expose them to the sun and wind, a little more each day, over the course of a week or two. This will allow them to make the adjustment without going into shock. Then, using your design sketch, transplant your seedlings into their permanent home in the garden.
Starting an herb garden indoors is an easy and creative way to stretch the growing season. With a little forethought and planning, growers can have herb seedlings ready to plant and the garden bed ready to receive them first thing next spring.